Social Distancing

Schools closed, nursing homes blocks visitors, restaurants and bars restricted
Thursday, March 19, 2020
Article Image Alt Text
Article Image Alt Text

SCN photo by Drea Howard — It has become a common site to see empty shelves at nearly every store. Toilet paper, paper products, wet wipes, bleach, flour and other other-the-counter medications are being bought by a fearful public.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The COVID-19 pandemic is a rapidly evolving situation. The information that is printed in the SCN is accurate at the time of deadline. We will update information as often as possible.

The coronavirus — technically called Covid-19 — officially arrived in Montana Friday, March 13, with now four cases reported in Yellowstone, Gallatin, Silverbow and Lewis & Clark counties.

So far this week, seven more have been added, bringing to a total 11 positive tests.

Stillwater Billings Clinic Community Nurse Natasha Sailer said chances are more likely than not that it will also find Stillwater County.

Medical professionals, national, state and local authorities say now is the time for caution — not panic.

To that end, there is a plan being carried out locally and across the nation under President Trump’s “Coronavirus Guidelines for America — 15 Days to Slow the Spread of Coronavirus (COVID-19).”

The hope is that the impact of the virus will be lessened and allow for the return of a more normal life.

It’s called social distancing — the practice of not congregating in groups of 20 people or more. The idea is to short-circuit this new strain of virus by not giving it anyplace to go.

It’s a simple concept and one that is proven to work, according to international, national, state and local healthcare professionals.

Social distancing is the reason why professional sporting events, tourist locations such as Disneyland, schools, universities and many businesses have suddenly closed down temporarily. It is also the reason why some states — and some Montana cities — have temporarily shut down dine-in restaurants, bars and casinos.

Montana schools were ordered closed for two weeks by the governor, starting Monday, March 16.

On Wednesday, by order of Stillwater County Officer Dr. Cody White, all bars, pubs and restaurants close at 9 p.m. and must limit the number of customers in the establishment at one time to 20. Food service operations that serve a population that depend on it as one of its sole sources of food, such as cafeterias, may continue to operate as usual. This is in effect until April 1 at midnight.

Early Monday morning, school officials, healthcare providers, city and county government representatives and emergency services gathered for a briefing by Sailer and Stillwater Billings Clinic CEO David Ryerse. A unified command team has been assembled consisting of the county, Stillwater County Public Health, Stillwater Billings Clinic, county Disaster and Emergency Services (DES), public schools, Stillwater County Sheriff’s Department and Columbus Fire Rescue. Information and updates are being provided in one central location and can be accessed at, by clicking the red banner at the top of that webpage. The following matters were discussed at Monday’s meeting:


As of Wednesday night, March 18, there were 11 confirmed cases in the state, with two the latest two being confirmed Wednesday night. 

Of those cases, two people had visited Washington, two had travelled abroad and two had potentially contracted it at the Board of Regents meeting in Dillon recently, according to Sailer. Because this is rapidly evolving situation, it was not immediately known where the remaining people had been.

As a precaution, all attendees that were at the Board of Regents meeting have been placed on a 14-day quarantine. The ages of the patients range from 20s to 60s.

As of Thursday morning, March 19, there were no local cases.

“We are still at 0,” said Sailer.

State and local public health laboratories are no longer required to send test results to the Center of Disease Control for confirmation, which eliminates the term “presumptive positive.” From now on, all samples that test positive for COVID-19 are considered positive, with no need for further testing, according to a news release sent out late Monday night by Gov. Steve Bullock.


The Stillwater County Commissioners have suspended travel outside the county for county business for all employees and enacted a measure requiring any employee who has been outside the state within the last 14 days to stay home for 14 days. Commissioner Tyrel Hamilton is currently in that situation, having recently been in Tennessee. Commissioner Dennis Shupak is also working from home due to him falling into the at-risk category of people ages 60 and older. Both commissioners took part in Tuesday morning’s agenda meeting through the phone. A handful of other county employees are also on self-quarantine for various reasons, mostly because of recent travel to other states.

Commissioner Chairman Mark Crago said that for now, the courthouse will remain open for business.

Columbus Mayor Gary Woltermann also falls into the atrisk category and opted to not attend Monday night’s Columbus City Council meeting.

Late Monday, the city and county approved a joint resolution that will allow both to qualify for federal assistance if needed.

Sailer said that Stillwater businesses and offices should immediately start utilizing conference calls as opposed to meetings and that checking on neighbors and friends be done by phone, not in person.

The following is a list of closures due to the social distancing narrative:

-The temporary closure of both senior centers in Columbus and Absarokee, with the Meals-on-Wheels programs still running.

-By order of the governor, all schools have been closed down for two weeks.

-Absarokee’s Quick Draw scholarship fundraiser has been cancelled.

-All school travel activities have been cancelled.

-The spring sports season has been suspended until at least April by the Montana Association of High Schools.

-All events scheduled at the Columbus fairgrounds.

-Many churches have suspended services.

-Stillwater Billings Clinic is operating on a lock-down basis, meaning the doors are locked and people are required to call before being let in.

Day-care facilities are still open and will remain so, at the discretion of Sailer and Dr. Cody White. Sailer explained that at this point, children are not proving to be susceptible to the virus. While children are having relatively low complications, there is still a risk of spread through children. If daycares remain open, it limits the need to use grandparents and individuals over 60 to watch children, that could potentially spread the virus to that older population.

Sailer also made the following recommendations:

-Frequent hand washing.

-Covering your cough and sneeze, then rewashing your hands.

-Staying home when sick or sending employees home when they are sick.

As far as appropriate items to make sure and have at home, Sailer and Dr. White listed the following:

-Two weeks worth of any prescription medication.

-Food for two weeks.


Sailer and DES Coordinator Carol Arkell addressed the issue of people taking school kids to movies or to Billings for recreation. Both called that the opposite of social distancing and reiterated that kids need to stay at home.

Because schools have been closed due to an emergency declaration, they will not have to make up the missed time at the end of the year, said Columbus Superintended Jeff Bermes.

Bermes also said he is rolling out a test in the form of online teaching next week that involves email and packets.

Schools are still required to provide meals to those students who receive them through various programs. In Columbus, Bermes was working on an idea involving school bus drivers and sack-lunch deliveries.

Absarokee, Park City, Reed Point and Rapelje superintendents and/or principles were all in attendance and had several questions, ranging from cleaning mandates to reporting protocol.


County Commissioner Mark Crago posed a question about the protocol of events if someone should test positive. Sailer said the first step is to report the matter to the human resources office of whatever organization is involved. HR then contacts Sailer and she conducts an interview and investigation. Anyone who had contact with the positive tester will be put in self-quarantine for 14 days and asked to monitor their symptoms. A fever and a cough are the primary symptoms.

In order to be tested for COVID-19, a patient must be 65 or older, be displaying symptoms, be a patient already in the hospital or have been to a “hot spot.”

For county and city government, as well as private businesses, Sailer recommends allowing employees to work from home when possible.